Puglia (Apulia)

port in PugliaPuglia forms the high heel on the elegant boot that is the Italian peninsula. It borders Molise to the north and Campania and Basilicata to the west and the rest is coastline. Across the Adriatic Sea from Puglia are Albania and, further south, Greece, both of which can be easily reached by ferry from Bari and Brindisi. Because of its strategic location, the region has been invaded by wave after wave of settlers, all of whom have left their mark in one way or another. The legacy of the Greek colonisation in the eighth century BC is still much in evidence, and a dialect of the Greek language is spoken by a significant (though ageing) minority of the population in the south of Puglia.


As in Campania, heavy industry spoils the view in parts of Puglia, mainly in the triangle between Bari, Brindisi and Taranto. Agriculture and fishing are also important contributors to the region's economy. Like Campania, Puglia is more sophisticated, prosperous and happening than neighbouring Molise and Basilicata, but this is still very much a Southern-Italian region.


Although in recent years more and more northern Italians have been spending their holidays in Puglia, the region is only just beginning to become known and loved by British and other foreign holiday-makers. I spent a fortnight there one summer when I was living in Milan and was astonished by the quality of the light, the colours and the clean, white sand. In fact, I remember a couple of places in Puglia as the closest thing I've found to heaven on earth.




The Tremiti Islands

Twelve miles north of the Gargano promontory are the little Tremiti Islands - San Domino, San Nicola, Caprara, Cretaccio and Pianosa - known as the pearls of the Adriatic. The islands are exceptionally beautiful but they are small and therefore do get crowded during the holiday season, particularly with day-trippers. The surrounding water is sparkling, clean and popular with divers.


San Domino is the largest of the islands (though even this one can be crossed on foot in under two hours) and the one best prepared for tourists. San Nicola, the only other inhabited island, is the administrative capital of the Tremiti and worth a look round for those interested in history as well as nature-lovers.


Pianosa is set apart from the other islands and Cretaccio is basically just a rock. Caprara is roughly the same size as San Nicola and has two buildings on it: a disused prison/farm and a functioning lighthouse. Numerous boat trips run in the summer both to and around the islands, so you can experience their natural beauty and explore for yourself.


The whole archipelago is part of the Parco Nazionale del Gargano and can be reached by ferry or hydrofoil from Rodi Garganico, Vieste and Manfredonia in Puglia, though perhaps most conveniently from Termoli in Molise.


What to see and do in Puglia

Enjoy the mountains

Puglia is the least mountainous region in Italy. It is, in fact, mostly pretty flat except for the Gargano promontory, which is the piece of land that resembles a spur on the boot, and the Monti Dauni, also in the north of the region.


The Gargano National Park covers mountains, forests, caves, villages, lagoons and the Tremiti Islands (see above). It's a great area for hiking, biking and communing with nature, and it's also important spirtually, with many shrines and renowned places of worship. The most famous is probably San Giovanni Rotondo, the town where Padre Pio lived for over fifty years.


Enjoy the sea

Because Puglia is a relatively narrow sub-peninsula, you are never very far from the sea. If you want a fabulous beach, it's safest to avoid the industrialised areas around Bari, Brindisi and Taranto; your best bet is probably either Gargano or Salento, at the southerly tip of the region.


A good way of enjoying the wonderful clear waters off Puglia is to hire a boat. You can then either put down the anchor out at sea and dive off or use the boat to find secluded beaches that are difficult or impossible to reach by road.




Explore the cities and towns

Although of course Puglia's cities and towns all have beautiful and fascinating aspects to them, in my opinion the real joy of this region is to be found in the countryside and on the rural beaches. If you've got limited time, I'd recommend you focus on nature and the sea but, if you've got time and the inclination to dig beneath the surface, exploring Puglia's conurbations can reap unexpected rewards.


BariBari is the capital of Puglia and the second largest city on the Southern Italian mainland, after Napoli. As with so many Italian cities, Bari is divided into old town and new town. The old town is undergoing redevelopment and is becoming safer and more tourist-friendly, while the modern Murat quarter (so called because it was built by Napoleon's brother-in-law Joachim Murat) is good for shopping and has a nice promenade around the harbour. Bari is a hard-working city with a busy port. At first glance, it is not particularly attractive and you'll need to spend at least a few days there to come to appreciate what Bari has to offer.


Brindisi, the other huge port on the Adriatic coast of Puglia, has also recently had a facelift and has a more optimistic atmosphere than some other cities in the region. It has an impressive cathedral, a couple of interesting castles and several other historical sites worth visiting. The natural harbour that provides a 'gateway to the east' is a stimulating place and you can walk along the sea wall out into the sea, to get some perspective and a good view of the waterfront.


Lecce is known to some as the Florence of the South, because of its Baroque architecture, but it also has strong Greek influences. It has several wonderful churches and a Roman amphitheatre.


Taranto, on the other side of the sub-peninsula from Bari and Brindisi, was once a powerful Greek city and is now an industrial centre with busy commercial and military ports. It has an Aragonese castle, Greek temple ruins and a promenade with great views of the harbour.


Alberobello is famous for its trulli. These little cone-shaped dwellings date back to the sixteenth century and are now protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Nevertheless, you can rent one to stay in, if you'd like to.


Ostuni, the picturesque 'white city', is made up of little Greek-looking whitewashed houses. Some of the town is a few hundred years old and the rest a few thousand.


Visit the Grottoes of Castellana

In Castellana, south of Bari, is one of Puglia's most popular tourist attractions, the phenomenal Grotte di Castellana. You can visit the cave complex all the year round and they offer guided tours in English as well as Italian. It's not cheap, as these things never are, but it is an extraordinary place.




Eating and drinking in Puglia

Puglia's cuisine is simple and delicious, with some of the best fresh ingredients in Italy. The length of coastline gives the region a variety of fabulous fish and seafood, and the fact that Puglia is relatively flat facilitates agriculture and the grazing of animals. Locally grown tomatoes, peppers, onions, artichokes, melons and grapes are abundant and wonderful. Lamb is the most popular meat, though you'll also find a lot of beef, particularly in the form of meatballs. Cheese made fom sheep's milk, including ricotta and pecorino, is very good in Puglia.


The regional speciality pasta is orecchiette (so called because it's shaped like little ears), usually served with a tomato sauce.


Olive oil from Puglia

Puglia is covered in groves of serious olive trees, many of which have been there for centuries, and the region is renowned for producing more olive oil than the rest of Italy put together. Not only is it plentiful, olive oil from Puglia is some of the very best in the world.


Wines from Puglia

This fertile region also yields excellent grapes, many of which are made into wine. For many years, Puglia was known for the quantities of wine it produced but recently that has been diminishing, in favour of a focus on quality. Red, white and rosé wines from Puglia are all good value and definitely worth trying.


For more information about Puglia...

Buy a guide book for travelling around Puglia.


Check out this website:

Apulia's Official Tourism Portal

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